Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Catalogue Product

The Digital Bits reports that Warner Home Video, the current leader in old movies on DVD (in part because they own the catalogues of at least three major studios, and in part because of their wisdom in hiring George Feltenstein) will rush a ton of "catalogue product," as it is known, onto the market in 2006. Titles range from the sublimity of a two-disc The Maltese Falcon to the ridiculousness of Marlon Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty. A lot of good titles in there, though a surprising lack of good comedies.

Items of interest include the rest of the Astaire/Rogers films, a "Pre-Code" collection (including Baby Face), and a "Warner Tough Guys" collection, consisting of "tough" movies the studio made when they could no longer make out-and-out glorification-of-gangsterism movies; it includes an old favorite, the gangster comedy A Slight Case of Murder (one of the few good non-animated comedies Warner Brothers ever did).

Also, the item announces the official contents of the John Ford box set; the good news is that there are two John Ford sets, but the bad news is that neither one includes Wagon Master:


There's a new John Wayne/John Ford Collection on the way, which will include The Searchers: 50th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition (1956), along with a Stagecoach: Two-Disc Special Edition (1939), Fort Apache (1948), The Long Voyage Home (1940), The Wings of Eagles (1957), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), They Were Expendable (1945) and 3 Godfathers (1948).

There's also The John Ford Collection that will include The Lost Patrol (1934), The Informer (1935), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Mary of Scotland (1936) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960).

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Defam'd

The San Diego Union-Tribune has an article on Mark Lisanti, creator of the Defamer site.

Grudge Matches I'd Like to See: Alfred Hitchcock vs. Rod Serling

Good evening. Tonight's Grudge Match I'd like to see is:

ALFRED HITCHCOCK, a successful film director who became a public figure by hosting a TV anthology series that he produced (Alfred Hitchcock Presents) vs. ROD SERLING, a successful television scriptwriter who became a public figure by hosting a TV anthology series that he produced (The Twilight Zone).

Two icons of irony in mortal combat. Who will be left standing after the inevitable twist ending?

OT: Parallels

Off-topic, but did you realize that from a certain point of view, the entire history of American presidential elections from 1980 to the present can be seen as a repeat of the history of the same country's elections from 1932 to 1968?

Observe:

- A President finds himself weakened by a bad economy, and loses his bid for re-election to a challenger who promises to restore confidence to the nation (Hoover losing to Roosevelt; Carter losing to Reagan)

- The new President proves popular, though his policies are controversial (Roosevelt, Reagan)

- The popular President is succeeded by his Vice-President, who is less popular (Truman, Bush I)

- After years out of the White House, the opposition party finally recaptures the Presidency with a moderate, likable candidate (Eisenhower, Clinton)

- The new President's party loses the Congress in the second year of his presidency (Republicans lost the Congress in 1954; Democrats lost the Congress in 1994)

- After two successful terms, the President is succeeded as a candidate by his Vice-President (Nixon, Gore), running against a callow candidate without a great deal of experience who comes from a powerful and influential family (Kennedy, Bush II). Unable to fully capitalize on the popularity of his predecessor, the Vice-President loses an extremely close race, whose results are hotly disputed (1960, 2000).

- Early into the new presidency, an event occurs that scares the world, brings the nation together, and seems to give the ruling party an obvious advantage on national security, though some argue that the ruling party may not have handled the situation very well (Cuban Missle Crisis; September 11, 2001)

- The ruling party holds onto the Presidency in the next election (1964, 2004).

- A big-spending Texan president (Johnson, Bush II), whose party controls the House and Senate, runs up a big tab and gets the country into a war that becomes highly controversial, with controversy raging over the reasons for the war and over the question of whether it is winnable (Vietnam, Iraq II).

Sure, some things don't match up (the Kennedy assassination has no parallel now, thankfully). But there's a lot of stuff that does match up.

This explains why I'm tradesporting on Al Gore to be President in 2009. Apart from the fact that I think he will run, and win, history just seems to be on the side of the Vice-President who barely lost in a year ending in 0.

Mozart Bashing

For those of you looking for something a little different for the Mozart Year, there's always this interview with Glenn Gould, where he gives some of his infamous thoughts on Mozart ("a composer who developed towards mediocrity").

There's also the great line from the movie Vertigo, where James Stewart is in a sanitarium, and Mozart music is being pumped into his room as "musical therapy." Barbara Bel Geddes ends the scene by telling a doctor:

"You know what, doctor? I don't think Mozart's going to help at all."

And finally, there's the comments of Beethoven on Mozart's operas:

"I could not compose operas like 'Don Giovanni' and 'Figaro;' toward them I feel too great a repugnance. I could never have chosen such subjects; they are too frivolous."

Take that, Wolfgang!

Friday, January 27, 2006

A Bushel of Peckinpah

I wanted to write something about Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country -- the perfect blend of old-fashioned Western and revisionist Western -- but Tom Block's Review says most of what needs to be said.

I will add that while most of Peckinpah's Westerns use the theme of aging cowboys dealing with the death of the old West (and the old-fashioned Western), it's particularly poignant and effective in Ride the High Country because the movie was made at a time when the old movie industry was in a state of virtual collapse. The studio system was broken, but nothing had come along to replace it; studios like MGM (which made High Country) were floundering. Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea were products of the old movie business, where Westerns were plentiful and profitable; by 1962, with the role of the "B" movie having been taken over by television, they were as much of an anachronism in the movie business as Steve Judd and Gil Westrum are in the world of Ride the High Country.

The shooting script is available online, so I can cut-and-paste the best part of the film, the great speech by Edgar Buchanan as a drunken judge: performing a wedding ceremony in a brothel, he unexpectedly delivers a poignant speech about marriage, human nature, and the effects of time:


JUDGE TOLLIVER
We are gathered here in the high
mountains, and in the presence of
this august company, to join together
this man and this woman in
matrimony... Now matrimony is an
honorable estate, instituted, blessed,
and commended and commented on by
almost everybody.
(then to Billy and
Elsa -- gently, simply)
I am not a man of the Cloth, and
this is not a religious ceremony. It
is a Civil marriage. But nonetheless,
it should not be entered into
unadvisedly, but reverently and
soberly... You know, a good marriage
has a kind of simple glory about it.
A good marriage is a rare animal,
hard to find -- almost impossible to
keep...
(stumbling, remembering)
I don't know -- you see... Well,
people change. It's important for
you to know at the beginning that
people change. You see, the real
glory of marriage don't come at the
beginning. It comes later and it's
hard work.

Supe's On

The Digital Bits confirms that Warner Brothers is finally going to have Richard Donner put together his own cut of Superman II. More about that, and the tangled history of that film, in this earlier post.

None of that solves the problem of Margot Kidder and her grating performance as Lois. Nor the mystery of why they used Kidder after Anne Archer made an excellent test for the part. But it'll help to have some of Donner's scenes put back, though part II will always have the drawback of not having an ending (it was supposed to end with the scene of Superman turning back time to save Lois -- which also explained why she forgot Clark was Superman -- but that ending was used for part I instead).

Feel the Mozart Love!

Well, it's Mozart's 250th birthday, which apparently is more significant than his 249th birthday for some reason. This round of "Mozart fever" seems a bit more restrained than the last big Mozart year, 1991 (200th anniversary of his death, as if we're supposed to celebrate the fact that he died young). That year may actually have had the little-noted effect of killing off the classical recording industry: in the middle of the boom in sales caused by the coming of CD, the record companies issued a bazillion new Mozart recordings, most of them instantly-forgettable, and created a glut of classical recordings on the market, none of which could make back their costs. It was all downhill from there for major-label classical recordings. So thank you, Wolfgang, for helping to wreck the recording business.

On a serious note, one thing I think people don't always appreciate about Mozart is that he wasn't some kind of amazing boy genius. Among child-prodigy composers, he was not one of the most impressive by any means; the music he wrote as a boy isn't nearly as good as the work of the youthful Felix Mendelssohn or Erich Wolfgang Korngold. These were true prodigies; Mozart's early music is the work of a talented young musician who knew all the formulas, but it's not music that suggests a great composer in the making. Mozart worked hard, studied, perfected his craft as a composer, and became great.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

We're Tiny, We're Stimpy

Animator Jenny Lerew posts something I never thought I'd see: John Kricfalusi sketches for Tiny Toon Adventures. See here and here. It was a freelance assignment he did on an episode called "Who Bopped Bugs Bunny?," where a character called Slap-Happy Stanley (a takeoff on Terrytoons' Stanley the Elephant) kidnaps Bugs Bunny in revenge for losing the Oscar to the rabbit's "Knighty-Knight Bugs." I don't recall whether the version of Stanley actually used in the episode bore a lot of resemblance to Kricfalusi's designs.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Fayard Nicholas

Fayard Nicholas has died at the age of 91. Fayard and his younger brother Harold were The Nicholas Brothers, the most amazing tap-dancing team of all time. Their routines, preserved on film in the several (but not enough) movies they got to appear in, were astonishing; they seemed to defy the laws of physics.

Mark Evanier has some reminiscences of Fayard Nicholas. And here's a 1999 interview with Fayard Nicholas.

A-Ford-able

Barrie Maxwell at The Digital Bits reports that one of the biggest DVD gaps -- the relative lack of John Ford movies -- is about to be filled:

There is further confirmation that a John Ford box set will be forthcoming later this year, probably in the second or third quarter. Titles likely to be included are: The Informer, Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home, Fort Apache, The Searchers, and Cheyenne Autumn. Writer Scott Eyman is involved in some of the supplementary content (commentary, interviews) being assembled for these releases.


Stagecoach and The Searchers have been available on DVD before, but in unimpressive-looking releases; the new releases are reportedly two-disc special editions.

I'd rather have something other than Cheyenne Autumn, like, say, Wagon Master (supposedly Ford's own favorite film) but the rest of the box will make a nice mix of Ford's '30s-early '40s period as Hollywood's artiest sentimentalist (The Informer, The Long Voyage Home) and his sprawling, fascinating postwar films about the contradictions of American history/mythology (Fort Apache, The Searchers).

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Pretty Little Pixar

As I'm sure you've heard, Disney has bought Pixar. Amid Amidi has a news round-up over at Cartoon Brew.

My gut reaction is that Disney may have bought into a declining market. Pixar is a great company, but the computer-animation boom shows signs of having peaked; remember the reports that DVD sales of Pixar's The Incredibles and DreamWorks' successful albeit pointless Shrek 2 were less than expected. Of course, Jobs, Catmull and Lasseter are smart guys who know how to keep up with changing public tastes, so there's every possibility that they'll be able to keep turning out hits -- but I just wanted to raise the possibility that we've already seen the highest heights of the vogue for computer-animated movies, much as the vogue for hand-drawn movies hit its peak with The Lion King in 1994.

Speaking of hand-drawn, I share the hope of Jerry Beck that we might see the return of hand-drawn animation to Disney, but I doubt the executives would stand for it ("Hand-drawn? Animation with pencils? What kind of Mickey Mouse operation is that?").

Strangely Admirable

I give you (or, rather, James Eatock gives you) "The He-Man and She-Ra Blog."

Merger Mania

The WB and UPN networks are merging. The new network will be called "The CW," which is really scraping the barrel as far as network acronyms go.

I guess the decision makes business sense -- neither network was ever really that strong on its own, and together they might have a chance of moving out of fifth place -- but it's kind of sad to see the end of two networks that actually had an individual identity and brand name, in a way that the big networks don't. You could talk about a WB type show and people would know you meant something like "Buffy" (even if that moved to UPN for a couple of disappointing seasons) or "Smallville" or "Charmed" or "Gilmore Girls" or even -- gurk -- "Seventh Heaven," something with youth appeal that the parents wouldn't mind watching too. And UPN forged an identity the last network that seems to recall that not everyone in the world is Caucasian. Now it's all going to get mushed together.

Hopefully, when the new network plans its schedule, UPN's "Veronica Mars" will make the cut. I might as well put in a good word for the WB's "Reba," which has been one of the few good traditional sitcoms on the air for the last few years (though I haven't watched it this season, so maybe it's gone downhill). And the article's mention of the "Kids WB" programming block reminds me that it was the creation of the WB that eventually led to the downfall of the WB televsion animation department -- taking cartoons like "Animaniacs" and "Batman" away from their excellent time slots on Fox and sticking them on the struggling new network, where they were shuffled around, re-tooled and eventually dropped in favor of "Pokemon." Sad memories.

I'd Threaten To Move To Canada, But I'm Already There

So our new government will be a Tory minority, or "Tority." I can live with it.

For those of you obsessed with Google Groups, here are the results of a search I did for for early usenet references to Stephen Harper (our new Prime Minister) back when he was one of the leading lights of the Reform party (which was eventually combined with what was left of the old Progressive Concervatives to create the new Tory party). Frankly I was hoping to find something juicier.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Ain't It The Truth

Cabin in the Sky was the first movie directed by Vincente Minnelli, and one of the best. The racial stereotypes aren't the greatest, and the religious message is actually kind of appalling (apparently getting into heaven depends primarily on how much money you give to the church). But the film has a great cast, some of Minnelli's best camerawork -- like the uninterrupted tracking shot through the church in the "Li'l Black Sheep" number -- and none of the overblown, overstuffed quality that would plague some of Minnelli's later musicals; it's all good fun with great performers, which is what a musical should be.

The one thing that hampers the movie is that it goes for too much of its length without a really show-stopping number; there's not much singing or dancing in the first half of the film. This wouldn't have been a problem if the song "Ain't It the Truth" had been left in the film. Newly-written for the film by the team of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, it was a hedonistic song about one of Harburg's favorite themes, having fun you can while there's still time (he returned to this in "T'Morra, T'Morra," "Napoleon," and many other songs). It was supposed to be sung by the minions of the devil: an imp played by Louis Armstrong, and temptress Georgia Brown, played by Lena Horne. But Armstrong's rendition of the first refrain -- followed by a trumpet solo -- was cut from the film and is lost; Horne's portion of the song, which she sang in a bubble bath, was preserved and used three years later in a short film called "Studio Visit." The story is that Horne's section was cut because it was feared that theatres wouldn't book a film with an African-American woman naked in a bubble bath; but that doesn't explain why Armstrong's section was cut, and it's a shame, because it left him without a number in the movie.

The DVD has both "Studio Visit" and the audio recording of Armstrong's portion. Fourteen years after Cabin in the Sky, Arlen and Harburg re-used "Ain't It the Truth" for their Broadway musical Jamaica, where it was sung by Lena Horne (not in a bubble bath). Another song they wrote for Cabin that wasn't used, "I Got a Song," found its way into the Broadway show Bloomer Girl in 1944.

Here are the Harburg lyrics to "Ain't It The Truth," though like any lyrics, they lose some of their impact without the tune (a great bluesy Arlen tune). These are the lyrics used in "Jamaica," which differ from the 1943 version in one or two places. Both versions contain one of the great Harburgisms, his euphemistic description of death and burial: "Layin' horizontal in that telephone booth."


Refrain 1
Life is short, short, brother,
(Ain't it the truth!)
And there is no other,
(Ain't it the truth!)
You got to rock that rainbow
While you still got your youth,
Ain't it the solid truth!

Was a guy called Adam,
(Ain't it the truth!)
He said: "Look here, madam..."
(Ain't it the truth!)
"You got to bite that apple
While you still got your tooth."
Ain't it the mellow truth!

Lord gave you wine and gin
To drown your troubles in,
What's all this talk of sin?
Rise and shine
And fall in line.

Get that new religion
(Ain't it the truth!)
'Fore you is dead pigeon
(Ain't it the truth!)
'Cause when you layin' horizontal
In that telephone booth,
There'll be no breathin' spell,
That's only naturell,
Ain't it the gos-a-pel truth!

Refrain 2

Life is short, short, brother,
(Ain't it the truth!)
And there is no other,
(Ain't it the truth!)
So if you don't love livin'
Then you're slightly uncouth,
Ain't it the visible truth!

Said that gal DuBarry,
(Ain't it the truth!)
"Love is cash and carry."
(Ain't it the truth!)
"You got to shake it down
Or stir it up with vermouth."
Ain't it the dignified truth!

Life is a ripplin' brook,
Man is a fish to cook,
You got to bait your hook,
Rise and shine
And cast your line.

Got to get your possum
(Ain't it the truth!)
While you still in blossom
(Ain't it the truth!)
That went for Delilah,
Cleopatra and Ruth:
Them babes did mighty swell,
They rang that Jeze-bell,
Ain't it the gos-a-pel truth!
It's the truth,
The truth,
It's the solid mellow truth!

Decent Disney

The Walt Disney company's TV output in the '80s and '90s was never very impressive overall. They had previously resisted doing any animated series for TV at all, on the basis that it would damage the Disney brand name to do less than top-quality animation, and especially to use overseas studios for the animation (an economic requirement for TV cartoons). When Michael Eisner came in, he ordered the company into the Saturday-morning-TV and direct-to-video market, which may well have had the effect of diluting the brand -- all those pointless video sequels tend to devalue the feature-length movies -- but was probably a necessary step, economically speaking.

However, the Disney TV stuff rarely had the effectiveness of the best TV cartoons of the '90s, like the Warner Brothers TV cartoons or "The Tick" (which Disney now owns and is about to release on DVD). Most of their TV product was based on their movie, short-cartoon, or comic-book franchises: "DuckTales" animated the Carl Barks universe; "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin" became animated TV series; "Chip n' Dale's Rescue Rangers" and "Goof Troop" found new formats for familiar characters. None of these shows did much more than remind us of why we liked the original versions better. One exception, as I recall, was "Tale Spin," which was a pretty good comedy/adventure featuring characters from "The Jungle Book" as adventurous pilots -- it was basically "Only Angels Have Wings" with Baloo the bear, and it worked surprisingly well.

Another Disney TV cartoon that was better than most was "Darkwing Duck", due for a DVD release this year; the story of an inept superhero -- or, more specifically, an idiot who thinks he's a superhero because he wears a cape and mask -- it was a bit like "Inspector Gadget" (bumbling hero with an intelligent niece), but much better and funnier. It was a very funny show, in fact, with great vocal acting from Jim Cummings in the lead role, and a fine team of writers. The DVD will probably be worth picking up, especially if they have some extra features.

The best-known of the Disney TV cartoons was "Gargoyles," their attempt to out-dark "Batman." With its dark storylines, violence (more violence than "Batman" could get away with) and seemingly endless story arcs and flashbacks, it was a fascinating show and often very well-written, though it perhaps took itself a bit more seriously than was really warranted by the story of stone gargoyles coming to life in New York. The show "Freakazoid!" did a parody of "Gargoyles" called "Lawn Gnomes," where the lead characters spend the entire episode filling us in on the backstory of how they got turned into stone, and by the time we cut back to the present, there's no more time for the contemporary story. The episodes of "Gargoyles" are being released on DVD; two box sets have been released so far and one more should come this year to complete the series.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Grudge Matches I'd Like To See: Robert Mitchum vs. Lee Marvin

Another "Grudge Match I'd Like To See": battle of the deep-voiced movie bad-asses, Robert Mitchum vs. Lee Marvin. Who wins, and does the combined force of their laconic coolness simply cause the universe to spin out of control?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

I Got Them Hill Street Blues

From the early days of usenet, I found lyrics to the "Hill Street Blues" theme song. I don't know who wrote the lyrics, but they fit pretty well:


Hill Street Blues
Hill Street Blues
Hill Street Blues, I got them Hill Street Blues
Put yourself in a policeman's shoes

When you're watching Hill Street, please don't snooze
There's just so much to see, it's a sure bet you'll lose
Catch the criminals, gather clues

Hill Street Blues
Hill Street Blues
When it's done I won't have Hill Street Blues
If pre-empted I will blow a fuse

Now it's time to watch those Hill Street Blues
Hill Street Blues.

The Grace of Kelley

For those of you nostalgic for the good old late '90s, a simpler time when life was sane, men were men, and women were ridiculously skinny, The Digital Bits reports that "Ally McBeal: The Complete First Season" is in the works for DVD release from Fox. This has been one of Fox's most-requested TV titles, which they've so far been unable to release because of the high music costs (creator/writer/megalomaniac David E. Kelley loves to work as many popular songs as possible into his episodes). I guess they've finally worked out the music licensing issues, which makes me wonder: if they can do it for "Ally McBeal," why not "WKRP in Cincinnati?"

Friday, January 20, 2006

Norm McCabe (1911 - 2006)

Animator Norman McCabe, best-known for the cartoons he directed at Warner Brothers in the early '40s, has died at the age of 94. (Scroll down to the bottom for the obit.)

He was an animator for Bob Clampett, and when Clampett took over Tex Avery's old unit, McCabe became director for Clampett's old unit, which produced black-and-white cartoons only. After three years as a director, he was drafted into the army; Frank Tashlin took over the unit, and that effectively ended his directing career. The best of the few cartoons he directed is probably "Daffy's Southern Exposure", though he's best-known for the wartime propaganda shorts "Tokio Jokio" and "The Ducktators."

McCabe resurfaced as an animator for DePatie-Freleng in the '60s, and worked steadily as an animator for the rest of his career. When Warner Brothers started its TV animation studio with "Tiny Toon Adventures," McCabe, almost 80, came on board as an animation timer, helping to give the gags a sharp sense of timing; he continued to work in that capacity on shows like "Animaniacs" and "Freakazoid," and wrote the script for a "Pinky and the Brain" cartoon.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Butler Did It

I was writing something about "Hill Street Blues" (the first season is available Jan. 31), and one thing that I've decided is that the director of the pilot, Robert Butler, must be one of the most important figures in the not-terribly-glorious history of episodic TV directing. TV directors are mostly traffic cops -- they tell the actors where to move, shoot the footage, turn it over to the showrunner, and move on. But there are a few directors who go beyond that, and Butler seems to be one of them. Among the pilots he directed were:

- Star Trek
- Batman
- Remington Steele
- Moonlighting
- Hill Street Blues
- Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman
- Hogan's Heroes

Of those, at least two stand out as having changed, and raised, the standard for direction of a TV show. One is "Hill Street Blues," where Butler introduced hand-held cameras (he actually wanted to do the whole show that way, but had to settle for just the "roll call" scenes and a few individual shots here and there) and a grittier, less formal look than any TV drama up to that point.

The other, strangely enough, is "Batman." Television episodic drama had always been pretty bland in terms of set design, blocking, camerawork: no matter what the subject-matter, the filming style usually consisted of pointing the camera and getting the script on film. "Batman" was a show where the visual style was as important as the script; with the set design, tilted camera angles, and "POW!" "BAM!" graphics, the thing looked like a Dick Sprang comic come to life, and set a new benchmark for what visual/directorial imagination could do for a TV show.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

This is a Close-Up?

Roger Ebert has a column on three Chuck Jones cartoons: "Duck Amuck," "What's Opera Doc?" and "One Froggy Evening."

One correction: these cartoons were not made under Leon Schlesinger, who sold his interest in the WB cartoon studio in 1944; cartoons from that point on until 1957 were made under WB's in-house producer, Eddie Selzer.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Operation Filmation Will Cause Devastation

A company has licensed the DVD rights for the Filmation animation catalogue. The press release, as quoted at TV Shows on DVD, explains that the deal covers such titles as: "She-Ra: Princess of Power," "The Legend of Bravestarr," "Ghostbusters" (which has nothing to do with the movie, and is not to be confused with "The Real Ghostbusters," which was based on the movie), "The New Adventures of Zorro." They even mention "The Groovie Ghoulies," which is best known for the special movie-length episode where Filmation got the rights to use Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, making it arguably the most embarrassing use of classic cartoon characters.

Everything you didn't want to know about Filmation can be found at Jim's Filmation Page. Also, Paul Dini, a writer for Filmation's flagship property "He-Man," summarized the working methods and executive structure of the studio that Lou Scheimer built:


Do you have any comments on Filmation's upper level management?

Dolts, fools, idiots, drunks, child molesters, grave robbers, and lousy writers. Also cheap, cheap, cheap! I've got stories (about them) but they would get me sued. Besides, why should I give them to you for free when I can write a tell-all and make big bucks?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Think Golden-Globally

I know I'm not the first person to notice this, but the Golden Globes have become far more entertaining than the Academy Awards. The stars seem more relaxed; they get to sit at tables instead of those uncomfortable seats; they wear better clothes and crack better jokes. The awards are totally meaningless, but so are the Academy Awards (where the list of directors who never won is more impressive than those who did). And because there's no prestige or glory involved with winning a Golden Globe, the stars can sit back and look like they're enjoying themselves; there's not that feeling of competition, nor the stiffness that actors get when they know the camera is on them and they have to pretend that they're not disappointed about not winning.

All that, and Pia Zadora has never won an Academy Award, whereas she did win a Golden Globe. Game set and match, Golden Globes.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Problematic Prognostication

When it comes to 20th-century works of popular culture, I'm a big fan of wildly inaccurate prognostications of what things would be like in the 21st century. It seems so far we haven't got any of the good stuff (flying cars, peace, flying cars) or the bad stuff (nuclear holocaust, roaches taking over as humans die out, flying car crashes) that was routinely predicted for us.

But when it comes to predications of what things would be like in the 21st century, the one I really wish had come true was this one, in a speech from Sidney Kingsley's play Detective Story (1950):


JOE: I love these tall kids today. I got a nephew, 17, six-foot-three, blond hair, blue eyes. Science tells us at the turn of the century the average man and woman's going to be seven-foot tall. Seven foot! That's for me. We know the next fifty years are gonna be lousy: war, atom-bombs, whole friggin' civilization's caving in. But I don't wake up at four a.m. to bury myself, any more. I got the whole thing licked -- I'm skipping the next fifty years. I'm concentrating on the twenty-first century and all those seven-foot beauties.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Late '70s New York

Speaking of movies with independent heroines, Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman is out on DVD, in a disc with a good commentary (by Mazursky and Jill Clayburgh) that makes up for the lousy photoshopped cover art. Mazursky has spent most of his career making movies that either a) aren't as good as they should be or b) aren't any good at all, but An Unmarried Woman is a good 'un.

The film was shot in 1977 entirely on location in New York -- exteriors and interiors alike -- and a big point in its favor is that New York looks so utterly cool and beautiful and wonderful. It's something I've noticed in a lot of New York-based movies from the late '70s, that the New York portrayed in these movies has an aura about it, a feeling of being a special world unto itself, that it didn't have in earlier movies and doesn't have today. There were a lot of movies set in New York in this period: Annie Hall, Kramer vs. Kramer, Taxi Driver, the first half of The In-Laws, and so on; and they all just made New York look like no other city. Even Taxi Driver, which portrays the nightmare side of Manhattan, somehow seems like a very cool nightmare.

A commenter at the IMDb compares the fascination of late '70s New York to the cavalcade of "Swinging London" movies in the '60s:


Unmarried Woman came out in the late 70s when New York City was enjoying it's five minutes in the sun as the coolest city in the world. It rather took the baton from the London of the '60's, (though, with less fanfare), therefore anything that was shot there seemed to be of interest, even if it was just about a middle class woman dealing with the break up of her long marriage.

It's the details of this film that I like so much. I love Erica's fab apartment with great views of the East River, the way she dances around it on a bright sunny morning, in an early sequence.

I love the opening shot of Manhattan and the way the camera zooms, optimistically, along the East River, with the wonderful soundtrack blaring, until it finds our main characters jogging along. Jogging was a new phenomenon back in ' 77 (I swear) and New York was at the forefront of it. Seems odd now, but many of us were fascinated with this kind of minutiae of New York life back then. New York City seemed to be at the absolute centre of all that was new and cutting edge. A fast, creative, optimistic place where anything was possible,with a very dark side, (see Taxi Driver,) a dream location where fewer people were actually able to go to, before cheap airfares.


And best of all, not a single Duane Reade store can be glimpsed anywhere in the movie.

Friday, January 13, 2006

DVDetective

Us "Remington Steele" fans can be happy to know that the third season will be released on DVD on April 18.

Special features:
- Commentary on "Diced Steele" by Michael Gleason (creator/showrunner), Doris Roberts (Mildred Krebs) and Jeff Melvoin (writer)
- Commentary on "Now You Steele It, Now You Don't" by Michael Gleason, Jeff Melvoin, John Wirth (writer) and Brad Kern (writer)
- Commentary on "Steele in the Chips" by Michael Gleason and Stephanie Zimbalist (star and co-writer of this episode)
- Featurette: "The Baking of 'Steele in the Chips'"

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Birgit Nilsson

The soprano Birgit Nilsson has died at the age of 87. This AP obituary gives a good overview of her career. Her best roles included Wagner's Brünnhilde and Isolde, Strauss's Isolde and Elektra, and Puccini's Turandot -- roles that called for a huge voice and lots of stamina. While her voice was large, it was not wobbly as Wagnerian sopranos' voices often tended to be; in fact, she sometimes seemed to err on the other side, singing with relatively little vibrato and lending a "cold" or "steely" tone to her voice. (She was also one of the few great singers who, when she wasn't at her best, was more likely to sing sharp than to sing flat.) At her best, she produced amazing singing that was big and beautiful in a way that no dramatic soprano of her time could match; Conrad L. Osborne wrote that her Elektra was the only great singing of the role he had heard, because Nilsson was the only person who could actually sing everything Strauss wrote and make it sound good.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Me Like Feminist Movies

I remember that when I was in high school, I was fashionably anti-feminist. I say "fashionably" because this was the early '90s, the height of a particular kind of political correctness, and it was becoming fashionable, in response, to talk about how much feminism sucked. I talked about it, and several of my fellow teenage males talked about it too. We snickered at gender-neutral language and referred ominously to the evils of bra-burning (we'd never seen a bra burnt, but we'd heard about it being done somewhere). It was a time when our culture was making the transition to the over-masculinized culture of today -- where men are basically paranoid about doing or thinking anything that might be considered "girly" -- but we didn't realize it; we thought, as paranoid people still think today, that feminism and feminization was taking over the world and that we needed to fight back with all the bluster we could muster.

I don't think I ever got as deeply into the feminism-sucks movement as some of my classmates, and was pretty much done with that by the time I graduated from high school. But I think what really turned me over to the other side -- to the point that I am, if not precisely a male feminist, at least a fellow-traveller of Phil Donahue -- was one dialogue exchange in the movie The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

In this 1963 movie, Dina Merrill plays a successful fashion consultant who almost winds up marrying Eddie's widowed father (Glenn Ford). The movie pretty much marks her as an undesirable match because she's a career woman; Eddie (Ron Howard) doesn't like her, and we're supposed to be relieved when Ford ends up with a woman who'll be a totally devoted wife and mother (Shirley Jones, natch). This idea, that a woman who's devoted to her career is undesirable, is annoying enough. But the kicker was in a scene midway through the movie. Merrill explains to Ford the way she wants to live her life: she wants to be her own person, defined by her work and accomplishments, rather than being defined by her relationship to a man. Ford replies, re her aspirations: "Well, I think you'll have to settle for having the vote. I don't think it'll ever become a national movement."

The line ought to be a camp classic for its bad prognostication, but think of what Ford is saying: it is weird, bizarre, impossible, wrong for a woman to want to define her life and identity by something other than her relationship to a man. And the scene, as well as the way the movie plays out, doesn't suggest that Ford is wrong. There's something wrong with Merrill because she's not willing to let herself be swallowed up in the role of wife and mother.

When I saw this scene, and the movie, I thought: if a male character said that he wanted to be defined by his work and accomplishments, and not by his relationship to a woman, would anybody think that was weird or wrong? The answer was, of course not. There are tons of movies where the male character is defined mostly by his work and romance is secondary or nonexistent; most Westerns, for example, are hardly about the kissy stuff, and while John Wayne may have a love interest, he's basically John Wayne the guy who shoots people, rides horses, saves the town, not John Wayne the husband and father.

So from that one scene in that movie, I started to understand the concept of double standards and all those other things that we'd made fun of in high school: it made sense, because that movie was a snapshot of 1963 cultural norms (I'd seen enough pop culture from the same era to know it wasn't an outlier in its attitude toward women; it was just a little more obvious about it), and it was casually assuming that what men take for granted should not be available to women. I understood, in a way that I hadn't before, why there was a need for that "national movement" that Ford scoffs at as an impossibility.

Ever since then, I've always had an appreciation for movies and other works of art and popular culture that treat women the way Dina Merrill wanted to be treated in Eddie's Father -- as being defined by something other than their relationship to romantic partners or children. But works like that are hard to find. Women characters are usually defined by their relationship to men; whether it's a play/movie like The Women or a show like Sex and the City, you'll usually find that the female characters spend most of their time thinking and talking about men. Women are usually portrayed as having a job, but the job never really seems to matter much to who they are, the way the male character is defined by his job as a cop or a robber or a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief. The idea that a woman just is who or what she is, rather than somebody's wife or girlfriend or mother, is as foreign as it was in 1963, even though things are obviously better now than in 1963 (feminism has made it possible for single career women to go on TV and talk about how feminists ruined everything).

Are there movies and TV shows that I consider really feminist in that admittedly limited sense -- the sense of portraying female characters who are defined indepdendently of their romantic and maternal relationships? A few. I've said this before, but the movie Stage Door (not, repeat not the play it's based on) is one of the most genuinely feminist movies ever made, a movie entirely about women who don't define themselves or their achievements by whether they can get a man, or even what men think of them. It's not a man-hating manifesto; the Ginger Rogers character has a boyfriend and one character, played by Lucille Ball, leaves to get married -- but every woman in the picture is as much an individual, independent of romantic or parental relationships, as any John Wayne character.

Among TV shows, "Remington Steele" looks better all the time as a portrait of a woman who is involved in a quasi-romantic relationship with a man, yet is clearly her own person, defined by what she is and not by her romantic relationships. There's even an episode where she explicitly says that she doesn't want to have her own identity swallowed up in her relationship to a man: "I'm afraid of losing myself in you until there's no 'me' anymore."

And of course "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" eventually became the story of a woman who is defined the way the male characters are -- by her work, by her personality quirks, by her way of living. Though when it started out, a lot of the stories revolved around Mary's dates or around the question of why she didn't have a man, so the men-obsessed, Sex in the City type of vibe was there for a long time until they really got comfortable with the idea that Mary didn't have to apologize for being independent.

There must be other examples, and I'll add them if I get a chance; but there aren't a lot of examples; there's really no female equivalent of the Western hero, whose independence is just taken for granted without special pleading. There are a lot of ass-kickin' chicks in movies today, but the fact that they can kick a guy or swing a sword doesn't change the fact that many if not most of them are ulitimately just The Girl: the love interest, the mom, the damsel in somewhat less distress. The really feminist stories are the ones that take someone like the Dina Merrill character from The Courtship of Eddie's Father and treat her as the good guy. They don't come along very often.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Cutting-Edge Cinema

You may have read the various items speculating that Tim Burton will direct a film version of Sweeney Todd, with Johnny Depp as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Burton has been talked about as a potential director of a Sweeney Todd movie for something like ten years, so I'm skeptical.

If it's true, Burton will certainly be a better choice for the project than the guy who just pulled out of it, Sam Mendes (the man whose production of Cabaret seemed to be based on the proposition that a "serious" musical is one where the audience is discouraged from having anything resembling fun). Still, I'd point out that Burton's main weakness is in the realm of storytelling and structure -- he has great visual style but not much sense of story, so once the visual style ceases to dazzle us, we start noticing that the story isn't going anywhere -- and I wonder if he's the man who can really deal with the structural weaknesses of the Sweeney Todd musical. Sweeney Todd is one of those shows that takes a great long time to get to the point and then has to cram a lot of plot into a rushed second act, and that spends quite a lot of time on scenes that are either basically filler (the barbering contest between Todd and the Italian barber Pirelli) or don't really go anywhere (the romantic Anthony/Johanna subplot, which is practically dropped in act two). That describes a lot of Burton's movies too.

A smart script can deal with these things, of course, but I have a feeling that when it reaches the screen, the whole thing will wind up taking place in the mind of Beadle Bamford.

More Than You Wanted to Know About P.G. Wodehouse

I just found Biblia Wodehouseiana, a site that identifies Biblical quotations in the work of P.G. Wodehouse. The site was created (so the introduction claims) by a Benedictine Monk.

When he needed to make a literary allusion, Wodehouse, who wasn't a particularly enthusiastic reader (he spent most of his time writing, not reading), tended to draw on works he'd studied as a boy in public-school, which meant many quotations from the kinds of poems boys were forced to memorize -- Tennyson, Browning, Shakespeare -- and lots of Biblical quotations. Though the quotations would of course often be filtered through the unreliable memory of Bertie Wooster or some similar character.

I think my favorite Wodehouse quasi-biblical reference is: "The Lesson was one of those chapters of the Old Testament all about how Abimelech begat Jazzbo and Jazzbo begat Zachariah."

Runner-up, in the story "Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend," when Lord Emsworth is besieged by young children: "There was only one man who could have coped adequately with the situation and that was King Herod, who - regrettably - was not among those present." Because the only thing in Wodehouse more consistent than his love of Bible references is his hatred of most young children -- but that's a topic for another post.

Rattling Some Cages

David Hurwitz of Classics Today is one of the few English-language classical record reviewers left who can really pull off a good old-fashioned panning. Today he gives a roasting to Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in a recording of Schubert's "Great" Symphony. Not having heard the recording, I don't know if Hurwitz is being fair, but it's fun to read.

Simon Rattle seems to be a particular favorite target of Hurwitz, probably because the British press (which dominates English-language classical record reviewing, largely because most American music magazines abandoned serious classical record criticism years ago) considers him an irreproachable golden boy. For some reason, British record critics have a tendency toward national chauvinism; look at the "Penguin Guide" to classical recordings, by three veteran British writers, and you'll notice a strong but clear bias toward recordings by artists who either are British or led British orchestras. I'm not sure where this tendency comes from, but it's alternately infuriating and endearing.

The French, who probably have the largest amount of classical record criticism these days, don't appear to be as much in love with homegrown artists as the British. And the Americans, of course, are famous for their inferiority complex when it comes to home-grown classical artists (so that for many years almost no major American orchestra was led by an American, and American singers had to make their reputations in Europe before they could be taken seriously at home). Though the old High Fidelity magazine had a few chauvinists in there, like Robert C. Marsh, a Chicago-based critic; Marsh wrote a book about James Levine that is the most embarrassingly hagiographic book ever written about any musician, period.

Back to Simon Rattle, then: based on his recordings, I'm not precisely sure why his reputation is as big as it is, so that might explain why I'm receptive to Hurwitz's Rattle-bashing.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Stan Daniels Turn

In general, DVD commentaries don't introduce us to much "insider" slang that we showbiz outsiders hadn't already heard. I don't know whether this is because writers and producers deliberately leave out the slang when talking to us, or because we've all read so many inside-showbiz magazine stories that we are all, effectively, insideres now.

However, there was one term that I heard on a "Simpsons" DVD commentary that I hadn't heard before and that finally put a name to a familiar comedy-writing technique. Al Jean refers to something called the "Stan Daniels Turn." This is named for Stan Daniels, co-creator of "Taxi" and producer of the later seasons of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." The term refers to a type of joke where someone says one thing, and immediately (but unconsciously) contradicts himself a moment later. The joke is based on the speaker's lack of awareness of the disconnect between the two statements.

Here's a classic example from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," the episode "Chuckles Bites the Dust" (Daniels didn't write the episode, but he was one of the producers):

(Update: the clip I posted here is gone, so here's the script excerpt.)

(Situation: Ted is upset because Lou won't let him be grand marshal of the circus parade.)

TED
He treats me like a little child,
Mary. He bosses me around as though
I were ten years old.

MARY
Ted that isn't true. He may boss you
around but he doesn't think you're a
kid. He respects you as a mature
adult.

TED
(Anguished)
Then why won't he let me go to the
circus?



That's the Stan Daniels turn in its basic form: Ted says that he's upset at being treated like a child, and then, in his very next line, says something that a little child would say. The laugh comes from Ted's lack of self-awareness about this, and from the audience's pleasant surprise at realizing how the joke was set up.

The technique doesn't seem to have been very common, at least on sitcoms, before the '70s, which is presumably why it's named after Daniels (I doubt he invented it, but he seems to have popularized it). A lot of shows have used it since then; the show "Frasier" used it something like twice or three times an episode:


NILES: Well, I wish you'd at least think about it. A candidate like this doesn't come along that often. He's hard-working. He volunteers weekends at a soup kitchen. He really cares about people. Finally, a politician who believes in the things we believe in.

[A young boy approaches with boxes of candy.]

BOY: Buy a box of chocolates -- send a kid to camp?

NILES (angrily): Excuse me, can't you see we're talking here?!


It's kind of a self-aware, almost meta-humorous type of joke, because it's sort of a game between the writer and the audience -- see if they can set up something and find a creative way to contradict it in the very next moment -- and because it often depends on something happening oh-so-conveniently on cue, as in the above joke. When it works, it works really well, though.

The Last Days of Brisco

Bruce Campbell's official site confirms an upcoming DVD release of his series "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.".

Among the many cult-favorite shows that only lasted one season, this may be one of the weirdest: a cross between Western, science fiction, magical fantasy, and comedy, sort of like "Wild Wild West" if it had been cross-pollinated with the Indiana Jones movies and Saturday Night Live. Worth checking out if you share my affection for lines like "I am Dr. Quintano, medicine woman."

Typical Al Capp

The strip Li'l Abner wasn't at its best by 1953 (which is when the year comics.com is up to in their run of the strip), but the current run is pretty typical of creator Al Capp's working methods: it's been days since the birth of Li'l Abner and Daisy Mae's baby, but we only just found out what it looks like, and we still haven't found out whether it's a boy or a girl, since something always happens to prevent us (and Abner and Daisy) from finding out. That's Capp: Li'l Abner was a semi-parody of the serialized adventure strip, where every day they'd find some reason not to clear up the mystery or wrap up the story, and a lot of the humor of Li'l Abner came from the outrageous delaying tactics Capp would use.

The only problem was that sometimes he'd forget or not bother to wrap up the story at all; one time he spent an entire year on the story of Abner searching for a woman whose kneecap he saw in a Fearless Fosdick comic, and if he ever finished the story, I didn't see it. (He also introduced, during that year, a scene with Daisy Mae meeting a mysterious stranger who appears ready to marry her and take her away from Abner; we never found out who the stranger was or where that story was supposed to go.)

Lovers of Crappy Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, Unite

"Hong Kong Phooey" (number one super guy!) is coming to DVD, as part of Warner Home Video's apparent attempt to make available every single cartoon that's ever been spoofed on "Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law".

I don't know what it is about the bad Hanna-Barbera stuff that makes it so appealing; I think I know more people who love their bad stuff -- "Scooby Doo," "Superfriends," "Josie and the Pussycats," "The Smurfs" -- than who love their early, funny TV cartoons like "Ruff and Reddy" or "Huckleberry Hound." If I had to guess, I'd say that for a kid growing up watching cartoons, the H-B cartoons, putrid as they were, had a certain strange integrity: they weren't trying to sell us products, they weren't about pro-social messages, they were just about trying to entertain us. The fact that the "entertainment" mostly consisted of Muttley laughing a lot or Casey Kasem freaking out for some reason or other -- well, that was a minus, but at least Bill and Joe really did seem to care about giving kids a good time. Anyway, it beats "Rubik the Amazing Cube."

Friday, January 06, 2006

Lyrics: "Tall Hope" by Carolyn Leigh

As longtime (or even shorttime) readers of this blog will know, when I can't think of anything else to post, I fill up space by posting song lyrics I really like. This particular lyric is by Carolyn Leigh, one of my three or four favorite lyricists ever; it's the song "Tall Hope" from the musical Wildcat.

Wildcat was a star vehicle for Lucille Ball, a terrible singer (SCTV fans will recall Catherine O'Hara's parody of Ball's "singing" in the movie version of Mame); "Tall Hope," an ensemble number for the members of an oil drilling crew, was one of the few numbers that didn't involve Ball and therefore could actually get some decent singing.

The song itself is a great mixture of pastiche cowboy song, humor, and pathos; it shows off Leigh's combination of colloquial language and rhyming agility, along with her ability to come up with unusual turns of phrase. (Highlight of this one is the opening phrase, "Ridin' the tall hope.")


TATTOO
Right now
I'm ridin' the tall hope,
The ship that I call hope
Has me in the bow.
Come tell me tomorrow
To settle for small hope,
I'm ridin' the tall hope
Right now.
Come tell me tomorrow,
"Eliminate all hope,"
I'm ridin' the tall hope
Right now.

ONEY
There's a stripper in a joint in New Orleans
Just as faithful as a lady can be,
'Cause the told me she was spendin' her evenin's
Gettin' supper ready for me.
Enter Oney, cool as a breeze,
Flingin' diamonds at her dimply knees.
I can see my baby peelin' them peas
Right now.

ALL
Right now, right now.
Come tell me tomorrow
To settle for small hope,
I'm ridin' the tall hope
Right now.

SANDY
Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa,
Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa...

ALL
Wa-wa-wa-wa-what?

SANDY
I'm gonna buy me a slide trombone,
I'm gonna play me a tune so grand,
There'll be a ring on the telephone
And it's the boss man of the Promised land.

ALL
And what'll he say?

SANDY
What'll he say?
"How do you do?
Where have you been?"

ALL
You're in a spot!

SANDY
"Sinner or not,"
He's gonna say,
"Brother, come in!"

ALL
Why don't you come on in
And teach that Gabriel how?
Teach Gabriel how.
Come tell me tomorrow,
"Eliminate all hope,"
I'm ridin' the tall bright hope
Right now.
Come thunder, I don't shrink,
Come lightning, I don't scare,
Come mayhem, I don't think
I care
To wrinkle
My brow.

MATT
'Cause overhead the stars a-twinkle,
My two bare feet propped up in the bow,
Nothin' in the world to wrinkle
My brow,
Right now, right now.
Tomorrow find me grievin'
Or even in jail,
I'm in full sail
Right now.

ALL
Come tell me tomorrow,
"Eliminate all hope,"
I'm ridin' that tall bright hope
Right now.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

It's Just Little Oscar

If it's really true that Jon Stewart will host the Academy Awards this year, he'll have the distinction of having less to do with the movies than any Oscars host since Johnny Carson.

The list of hosts shows that the normal practice is to pick a comedian with a strong presence in the movies: Bob Hope and Billy Crystal are of course the most frequent hosts, though Carson is tied with them for most consecutive years as host (four). Note that in the early '70s they went with four co-hosts instead of one host, leading to such weird hosting teams as Helen Hayes, Alan King, Jack Lemmon and Sammy Davis Jr.

The host I would most have liked to see was Jerry Lewis, who was part of a team of co-hosts in 1959 and let the show degenerate into sort of a free-for-all, letting everyone come up onstage at the end. When Dean Martin came up, Lewis said: "And they said Dean and I would never be on the same stage again!" They never let Lewis host again, and the show degenerated into its usual state of numbing predictability, with the occasional streaker to liven things up.

Hop hop! Hop hop!

Terry Teachout has it right on Alban Berg's Wozzeck:

As for the opera itself, regular readers know I’m no fan of Austro-German expressionism, but Wozzeck is one of the supreme masterpieces of twentieth-century opera, a work so overwhelmingly compelling as to overwhelm any possible objections.


Wozzeck, a 20th-century opera based on the weirdest play of the 19th century (a play that, though written in 1837, reads like a work of the 20th-century avant-garde), is often considered the atonal opera for people who don't like atonal music. In fact, Berg is generally the most accessible of non-tonal composers. Even after Wozzeck, when he adopted Schoenberg's abtruse twelve-tone system, his music remained accessible; his violin concerto is as close to a popular concert staple as a twelve-tone composition can get, and his last opera, Lulu, is gorgeous-sounding despite its ugly subject-matter.

As to why Berg's music is easier to get into than most atonal music, I think it has to do with his understanding of voices -- instrumental voices and human voices. Many twentieth-century composers were cursed with an inability to write for voices and instruments in a manner that would sound attractive when performed. Schoenberg was often like that in his vocal writing, coming up with bizarre vocal lines that made a singer's voice sound unattractive. That, not the twelve-tone system itself, is what makes a lot of his music sound ugly: he had worked out the system, but he hadn't fully figured out what the music would sound like. Berg wrote for voices in a very challenging and difficult way; roles like Marie in Wozzeck and Lulu can kill a soprano's voice. But while music is hard, if the singer is up to the challenges, the music will sound great: Berg had a knowledge of the human voice that allowed him to write music that sounds beautiful when sung, just like Mozart or Verdi or either Strauss. His violin concerto is similarly good at making sure the music sounds right and appropriate for the violin.

A lot of the twelve-tone music that came after Berg (who died young) tended to be written by academics, like Milton Babbitt, who didn't have a lot of practical experience with writing for performers, and often wrote music that sounded better in theory than in practice. If twelve-tone music never became popular -- and it never did -- it may have more to do with that than any inherent problems of the twelve-tone system. It could be that if Berg had lived he'd have come up with the first genuine twelve-tone popular favorite; he could have done it if anyone could have.

A Better Idea Than a Book

Maybe it's just the fact that my favorite book as a teenager was "A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag" by Gordon Korman, but I've always had a soft spot for a good young adult novel. And by "good" I mean something that's funny, unsentimental and fast-paced -- a novel for the young adult who doesn't like sappy or preachy stories.

That's why I had some high hopes for a novel I never got around to reading as a teenager, "The Grounding of Group 6" by Julian F. Thompson. The book has a great, dark, funny premise: five teenagers, each in one way or another a disappointment to his or her parents, are sent to a boarding school that specializes in killing troublesome teenagers and disposing of the bodies. The kids realize that their parents have put a contract out on them, and team up to foil the killers who run the school and turn the tables on their parents. The premise, bluntly stated by one of the characters, is that the only reason parents don't kill their kids is that they can't get away with it; but what if there was a place that would provide that service for them and let them get away with it?

That's a perfect premise for a young-adult story: it confirms the paranoid fears teenagers have about those twin pillars of authority, parents and schoolteachers, and it offers a revenge fantasy where they get back at them, but good.

Unfortunately, the book takes too long to get this plot into gear, and makes the dubious choice of adding an older character to the mix: Nat, a twentysomething who has been hired by the school to assist in disposing of the kids, but ends up joining them, helping them out, and even becoming romantically involved with one of them. To have a non-teenager at the center of the book sort of dilutes the appeal of the teen revenge fantasy.

The book is at its best in the scenes with the killer teachers, especially the leader, Doctor, who explains his philosophy in flowery, James-Bond-villain dialogue: "Sometimes, a person gets a lemon, even if the name is Cadillac or Rolls. And if you do, it doesn't seem to do a bit of good to take it back and back and...." And some of the violent deaths are pretty funny, particularly the character whose dying words are "you are a plecklerucker micklestitch." But all in all, the idea is more fun than the actual novel.

The novel was optioned for the movies but never filmed; a movie of it, rewritten without the character of Nat and with a less flashback-heavy structure, might work.

Obscure Peanuts References

The official Peanuts site, which was previously reprinting strips from the early '70s and late '60s, has now gone back to the '50s strips that have already been reprinted in the Complete Peanuts books. This one has always kind of tickled me, since it's one of those strips that didn't usually get reprinted in the trade paperbacks -- Schulz or his syndicator tended to leave out the strips that had topical pop-culture references. And the particular cultural reference here, while obscure, is pretty funny: it plays on the fact that "Stardust" had, by the '50s, become such a standard that it hardly seemed like a pop song at all.

Correction: These strips are in fact from 1959, which will be reprinted in the next Complete Peanuts volume.

One More Thing Where I Mention "Batman"

Those of us who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons in the '80s can remember all sorts of truly deadly clichés. There was "just be yourself." There was "it's so crazy it just might work!" There was the phrase "here goes nothing" and, of course, the ending with all the characters laughing. But the worst cliché of all, the one every kid dreaded, was "If you do _____, you're no better than he is." I cannot tell you how many episodes of every freakin' cartoon show ended with a situation where a character has a chance to do something mean to the villain, and is told that this will make him "no better than he is."

Now, even a kid knew this was silly. I mean, if we do something wrong, that makes us bad, but it doesn't automatically make us as bad as Gargamel. The line came off as an attempt to infuse moral sophistication into shows that portrayed all morality as totally black-and-white for the other 21 minutes, and thereby rang false. But even if it didn't ring false, it sure sounded that way after it was used again and again and again and again....

I think the death of this particular phrase came in an episode of "Batman: The Animated Series" in 1995, wherein Batgirl teams up with Catwoman. At the end, Catwoman is about to let the villain fall into a vat of boiling oil:


BATGIRL: Stop! If you let him fall, you're no better than he is.
CATWOMAN: Oh, grow up.
(She lets him fall.)


Sure, the villain didn't actually die -- nobody died onscreen, by order of the Fox censors -- but Catwoman's line was true catharsis for all of us who had heard that line 97.5 times growing up.

Rumor at the time was that the original script had the "no better than he is" line played straight, and somebody added the line "Oh, grow up" to make fun of the cliché. Don't know if that's true.

"Duckman" also had a riff on this trope:


CORNFED: In a way, we were no better than Duckman. Actually, I'm speaking metaphorically; we were a lot better than Duckman.


"Tiny Toon Adventures" also slammed Sat-a.m. cartoon clichés on occasion:


BUSTER: We have to help the flea family. But what can we do?
(A sign appears: "Cartoon Cliché # 1: Shrink Yourselves.")
BABS: It's so crazy it just might work!
(Sign: "That's Cartoon Cliché # 2.")

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Thanks A Lot, But No Thanks

Warner Brothers Home Video has a bunch of lesser MGM musicals coming out on DVD this April.

Of these titles, I'm fondest of It's Always Fair Weather, the last of the Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen musicals, and a surprisingly dark and cynical followup to On the Town: three old military buddies re-unite after leaving the service, only to find that they dislike each other and that they hate their own lives. The cast is great -- Kelly, Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd, Cyd Charisse, Dolores Gray -- and it's one of the few early CinemaScope musicals to make effective use of that awkward screen shape. (The previous year, Donen had dealt with CinemaScope by filling it with Seven Brides and Seven Brothers; here he divides the frame into three and gives one section each to the three guys.) Basically it's a great musical in every way except the important one: the score, which was the first of many times that André Previn would demonstrate his total lack of ability as a songwriter. A terrific musician, but a real dud as a melodist. So the weak songs drag the film down, as does the lack of a good romantic number for Kelly and Charisse, but I still like it better than On the Town -- which also has score problems (namely the bland new songs written in place of Leonard Bernstein's).

Three Little Words is also worth a look; a biopic of two lesser-known songwriters, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (best known for their superb songs and scripts for the Marx Brothers), it's more enjoyable than most biopics, since it's unpretentious and doesn't try to inflate the importance of its subjects. Jack Cummings, who produced this and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, had lower budgets than MGM's other musicals producer, Arthur Freed, but compensated for it by producing films that were less overblown than some of Freed's, and often had better songs and more opportunities for the performers. Vera-Ellen in particular gets more to do than she usually did with Freed. And any movie with Arlene Dahl is, by definition, a good movie.

His Ridiculous Mask and Gadgets!

Following up my post about the final episodes of "Batman: the Animated Series", I found this page with excerpts from the comic book "Mad Love,", which was adapted into one of the best episodes of that last "Batman" season. The comic was written by Paul Dini, who more or less created Harley Quinn and used the longer comic story to explain her origin and her sick relationship with the Joker; the artwork, by series producer Bruce Timm, is a cross between the style of the TV series and the work of Mad's Harvey Kurtzman. The fantasy sequences -- which the TV adaptation didn't have room for -- are very Kurtzmanesque:

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Note the in-joke of Buster and Babs Bunny (from "Tiny Toon Adventures," which Dini and Timm and many of the other "Batman" people worked on) hanging from nooses.

The direct-to-video movie Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker hinted at a resolution to the Joker and Harley's relationship; without giving it away, we see that her wacked-out desire for a perfect sitcom-style family finally sort of meshes with the Joker's obsession with finding a way to get Batman's goat. But it didn't really deal with it the issue in any detail, because the sequence was only a ten-minute flashback within a Batman Beyond movie. Good as that movie was, I wish someone would go back and make that sequence into a movie of its own; it just has more resonance than the story of the teen futuristic Batman.

Monday, January 02, 2006

So Sit Back And Relax...

I've linked to the Animaniacs series bible before, but Ron O'Dell has some additional information on the development of the "Animaniacs" series and the differences between the series bible and the final series. Of particular interest are the characters who were supposed to have their own recurring series of cartoons on the show but never actually made it -- such as a comedy team called "Nipsey and Russell" and a soap-opera parody about amoebae.

The Good Old Days of Politically Correct Westerns

Watching and loving Budd Boetticher's Seven Men From Now, one little scene stood out for me as a scene that couldn't be done in a movie today -- not, at least, quite in the way it was done in 1956.

It's a short scene between Randolph Scott, as the grizzled hero, Stride, and Stuart Whitman, as a young Cavalry officer. The officer advises Scott to turn back, as the Chiracahua Apaches are in the area:

LIEUTENANT: We've been dispatched from Fort Crittenden to make a wide sweep south in an attempt to contact any and all Chiracahua in the area. Reports indicate they may be massing along the border.

STRIDE: Can't be more than fifty of 'em left in the whole territory.

LIEUTENANT: Oh? According to our scouts, there's well over a hundred.

STRIDE: That including the squaws, Lieutenant?

LIEUTENANT: I take it you don't think the Indians are dangerous.

STRIDE: They're worse than that -- they're hungry. Nothing as deadly as a half-starved Chiracahua.

LIEUTENANT: Well, then, we agree.

STRIDE: Do we?


The scene is short, brusque and elliptical, like most of the scenes in the movie, but the dialogue -- and Scott's sardonic attitude toward the Lieutenant -- conveys the clear point that Scott is a Western hero who doesn't think much of the military or their treatment of the Indians.

The reason I say you couldn't do this scene this way is that if you did it today, it would come off as a "politicized" scene, or something that has a particular point of view on history or the military or various other things. People would wonder what its agenda is. But Boetticher and the writer, Burt Kennedy, don't seem to attach that kind of meaning to the scene; they're just matter-of-factly using some points about the military and American Indians to make a larger point about their lead character.

A lot of Westerns from the golden age of Westerns -- which I date roughly from My Darling Clementine in 1946 to The Wild Bunch in 1969 -- have this quality, of matter-of-factly making negative points about America's history without ever seeming to become politicized. Look at Fort Apache (if it ever comes out on DVD, I mean). The producer, Merian Cooper, and the director, John Ford, made the movie as a patriotic tribute to America that would act as a counterweight to Communist propaganda, and indeed, it's a stirringly patriotic movie. It's also a movie that deals bluntly and forcefully with the mistreatment of Indians, the fact that complete nuts like the Henry Fonda character can be appointed to positions of leadership, and, at the end, the fact that a country's history and self-image is often based on lies (the John Wayne character lies about the Fonda character to create a better story). We sometimes think of patriotism as interchangeable with jingoism -- the difference between them being the difference between "my country right or wrong" and "my country is never wrong" -- but Fort Apache isn't at all jingoistic; it's as though Ford is so secure in his love of the Cavalry, and of the Western genre, that he can afford to show us the bad stuff too.

Now, it would certainly be possible to do a movie like that today, but it would be severely complicated by the fact that points like the ones I've described above would mark a movie as having an agenda, in a way that it didn't in 1948 or 1956.

Look again at the scene from Seven Men From Now and try to imagine how a director would approach a similar scene several decades later. It would be longer, for one thing. But for another thing, in an era when audiences are more conditioned to look for ideological messages in movies, the director would inevitably be conscious that the scene would be interpreted ideologically. If a movie did this scene in the early '90s, when one kind of political correctness was ascendant, it would inevitably take the anti-military subtext and turn it into text. Today, when a different kind of political correctness is more potent, such a scene would come under fire as an example of Hollywood's anti-military bias. No matter what kind of political correctness is in play, the filmmakers would have to worry about the scene offending someone, and walk on eggshells to avoid giving offense.

Could you go back to making movies the way Boetticher and Ford did, that is, just being matter-of-fact and concentrating on character without worrying about ideology? It's possible, but to a certain extent it's now inevitable that we will view movies, especially historical movies, through an ideological lens; I think we're more vigilant about trying to spot "preachy" messages and to resent anything that smacks of preaching. When media discussion of a Spielberg movie mostly revolves around whether he's sending the right message, I don't think a John Ford -- who offends political correctness on both sides of the aisle -- would have much chance of escaping without a big discussion of whether he's got an unacceptable slant on the topics he deals with.

An example of how things have changed: The original stage play and film of Annie Get Your Gun has a character saying, after finding out how smart the character of Sitting Bull is, "How'd we ever get the country away from those guys?" The line is a good exit punchline that simply uses a known fact (we took the country away from someone else) as grist for the mill. In the '90s, a rewritten, '90s-politically-correct Annie Get Your Gun played Broadway; much of the dialogue had been rewritten to make it more ethnically sensitive, but the "how'd we ever get the country away from them?" line remained. An acquaintance who saw the show -- to my left politically, but very resentful of all forms of political correctness -- complained about that line and how PC and hyper-sensitive it was. I explained that the line was in fact lifted from the original show. In 1946 that line was a symbol of how unpleasant facts about a country's history were more or less acknowledged and accepted as facts of life; fifty years later, the same line came off as an attempt to pander to the PC police. For all I know, maybe ten more years later it now comes off as a taboo-breaking piece of bad taste (un-PC is the new PC, as I never tire of pointing out). But one way or another, lines like that, and scenes like the Seven Men From Now scene, will probably never again come off as non-ideological. Maybe we are all benign Zhdanovites now.

In Which I Am Easily Amused

Noticing that a DVD release has been announced for the show "Police Woman," and not remembering the show very well, I decided to look at the episode guide and remind myself of what kind of stories they did.

Based on the following plot descriptions, all from the first season, it seems there's a pattern here:


Pepper [Angie Dickinson] and Crowley pose as bank employees to nail a particularly vicious gang of bank robbers.

Pepper investigates a school for modeling to which many young runaway girls are attracted.

Pepper and Bill go undercover to catch a rapist/killer who is targeting the wives of patients at a hospital.

Pepper goes undercover as an Airline Stewardess when her snitch is shot before he was able to tell her about the drug deal.

Pepper goes undercover in a woman's prison after a convict is slain who could have helped put away a mobster.

Pepper goes undercover as a nurse in a retirement home to find out who murdered a elderly woman.

Pepper goes undercover as a bored housewife when a blackmailer is found murdered the next likely victim is the suspect's husband.

Pepper goes undercover at a high school as a teacher to hunt down a group of drug pushers.

The deaths of a prominent politician and a nightclub dancer in a car explosion send Pepper to work as a go-go dancer for the club's owner, a one-time poor boy with a powerful yen for the finer things in life.


There's nothing like a '70s cop show. It's like the plots were created through mad libs: "Pepper goes undercover at a ___________."

With real shows like this, who needs Kresky?

"Well, That's That"

Has anyone ever made a list of all the Bugs Bunny cartoons where he says "Well, that's that?" You can't help but notice, watching a bunch of Bugs Bunny cartoons in succession, that there's a whole bunch of cartoons where he says "Well, that's that" after avoiding some peril or defeating some enemy.

Of course, as soon as he says "Well, that's that," something else comes along instantly to threaten him. The line "Well, that's that" is Bugs Bunny's equivalent of "It's over" in a horror movie; as you know, once the survivors in a horror movie say "It's over," the killer, apparently dead a few seconds ago, will spring up and try to kill someone.

Another cartoon variation on the "Well, that's that" principle was "Batman: The Animated Series" and the line "It's over, [fill in name of villain]." There must have been something like twenty episodes where Batman would tell the villain "It's over, Joker/Scarecrow/Penguin/Other Guy in Silly Costume," only to be hit on the head with something half a second later.

The moral: if you hear a character say it's over, it is never over.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Sind Sie En Americanischer Spion?

For those of you in New York the week of January 13, Film Forum is screening a new 35-mm print of Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, one of the fastest and funniest movies ever made.

Some of Wilder's officially-sanctioned masterpieces don't hold up that well for me: Some Like It Hot just doesn't seem all that funny to me any more, with its rambling storyline and some surprisingly lame comedy lines. But One, Two, Three just keeps looking better and better: a movie so timely that an opening narration had to be added to cover events that happened after it was filmed (at the time of filming, there was no wall between East and West Berlin; the border was sealed off just after the movie wrapped), it holds up because it's a perfect distillation of the culture and concerns of the early '60s. Two continents' worth of politics, pop-culture, marriage and business are contained and dissected within one movie.

It's also a catalogue of pop-culture references. Wilder was one of the first filmmakers to load his movies with references to older pop culture, as witness the many movie references in Sunset Blvd. and Some Like It Hot. One, Two, Three has all kinds of references to pop culture of the time, and to older stuff, including the work of star James Cagney: in one scene, he imitates the grapefruit routine from The Public Enemy, and Red Buttons (in a cameo) does an impression of Cagney's Angels With Dirty Faces shoulder-hitch.

The movie is carried almost entirely by Cagney, of course, though Pamela Tiffin (one of my favorites of the "Lost Starlets of the '60s") does a fantastic job with a character who shouldn't have been interesting at all. Wilder, never generous to his female characters, has nothing but contempt for Tiffin's southern-belle-ditz character, but Tiffin manages to convey the impression that her character isn't so much stupid as deeply weird. (Luanne on "King of the Hill" is a somewhat similar character.) Her line readings make Scarlett into a more sympathetic and likable character than Wilder probably intended her to be.

And anyone who's seen the movie can quote a lot of lines that are hilarious in context and not so much out of context:


"In the old days, when I ordered them to sit, they would sit. Now it is a democracy, they do what they want, and what they want is to stand."

"Call Dean Rusk, Dean Acheson, Dean anybody."

"Das is kuckucksur."

"We will give you Chinese cigarettes! Armenian rugs! Bulgarian yogurt?"

"Two out of three! Deal is on!"

"I will have you know that I am distantly related to Ex-King Farouk of Egypt."



And most memorably, the use of two songs: "Yes, We Have No Bananas," and "Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." I will not give away what Wilder does with those two songs, but suffice it to say, those are the two moments everybody seems to remember most.